Children Health

Climate change and children’s health

This is an emergency. The climate crisis is real, it is happening right now and it is a children’s rights issue. Global temperatures are increasing, sea levels are rising and natural disasters are becoming unnervingly common. The United Nations Children’s Fund reports that almost 50 per cent of the world’s children are now at extreme risk from climate change.

Physical, mental and social health impacts on children have been reported globally due to the climate crisis.

Locally, the effects of climate change are predicted to impact our health, economy, land usage, water availability and tourism sector. Local reports predict an increase in dangerous air pollution, extreme weather events such as heatwaves and diseases borne via biological vectors. Healthwise, our children are deemed to be the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, a startling phenomenon which is reflected worldwide.

Children are particularly susceptible to climate change because of their growing bodies, unique behaviours and dependence on caregivers. The physical health effects of climate change may start as early as pregnancy, where exposure of the mother to intense heat, air pollution and flood-related contaminants may lead to premature delivery and lower birth weight. After delivery, infants are more vulnerable to extreme heat, with literature reporting increased infant deaths during heatwaves.

Children spend more time outdoors than adults where they are exposed to higher concentrations of air pollution, such as ozone. Combine this with developing lungs and a tendency to mouth-breathe and we see a dangerous impact on the respiratory health of children. This can lead to a long-term decrease in lung function and increased susceptibility to acute respiratory illnesses and asthma.

Changes in weather patterns cause diseases spread by insects such as mosquitoes to appear in areas where they were not previously endemic. Floods may also contribute to diarrhoeal disease, which is particularly dangerous for infants and young children.

Scientific literature reveals how social, ecological and psychological factors interplay to manifest health effects in children. Home is typically envisioned as a safe space for a child but may be more susceptible to mould and flooding due to climate change.

Rising temperatures and poor air quality cause health problems which limit the time and ability that children have for social interactions. Extreme weather events will limit the time children can spend playing outside. This is already a major concern in Malta due to the challenge of childhood obesity.

Children living in areas subject to extreme weather events such as heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, floods and storms may be displaced from their homes. These environmental refugees have a higher risk of developing mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Heatwaves may also cause psychological distress and aggravate pre-existing mental health conditions.

Surveys in developed nations reveal that children and adolescents are experiencing anxiety and helplessness in the face of climate change. The term “eco-anxiety” was coined to describe the fear of environmental damage secondary to the impact of climate change.

Physical, mental and social health impacts on children have been reported globally due to the climate crisis

Maltese youths are not immune to this phenomenon. The 2021 EY Generate Youth Survey found that 55 per cent of Maltese youths believe the environment is one of Malta’s biggest challenges, with nine out of 10 believing that the Maltese environment is deteriorating. Responses to the survey called for a greater push for environmental protection in the Maltese Islands, including initiatives such as afforestation projects, protection of outside development zone areas, air pollution reduction and waste management projects.

So, what can we, as individuals, do in the face of climate change? We can adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, such as reducing consumption of single-use items and shopping second-hand wherever possible to encourage a circular economy. We can consider alternative methods of transportation such as public transport, walking, cycling, or carpooling. Also reducing the amount of animal products consumed in our diet and sourcing our food from local sources.

Finally, we can talk about the climate crisis and the real health effects it has on ourselves and our children. As individuals, we have a moral responsibility to bring this issue to our representatives in government, engage in activism on a local or international stage and vote with our feet.

While individual effort is the cornerstone to enact sustainable and effective change, governmental and institutional measures are essential to ensure universal change. The Paris Agreement in 2015 set a goal to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. However, the window of opportunity for appropriate change is closing in and we have no choice but to act fast.

The latest local contributions aim for at least 32 per cent of energy consumed to be from a renewable source by 2030. Local investment centres around solar energy, which should be encouraged via government grants and promoting the installation of solar panels on roofs of car parks and other commercial buildings.

More efficient use of roof space can allow installation of solar panels and solar water heaters together with roof gardens and vertical garden walls. More robust protection of limited existing green spaces is also essential.

Local targets call for the reduction of CO2 emissions from road transport to be reduced by 37.5 per cent by 2030. Infrastructure, such as safe cycling routes, investment in the public transport system, electric and hybrid buses, plus expanding teleworking arrangements to reduce traffic burden may improve this.

Other innovative climate-friendly initiatives include installation of more water reservoirs and increasing storm water collection systems to promote re-usage of rainwater and the use of energy-saving LED lighting in roads. Waste generation can be cut down further by setting up subsidised appliance repair centres and regularisation of unsolicited mail.

Current and future generations bear the greatest burden for climate change, although having contributed the least to the events causing it. In fact, the World Health Organisation estimates that 88 per cent of climate change burden is borne by children under five years of age. Our children deserve better, they must have a seat at the table during discussions about the climate emergency.

We must act as advocates for all children and push for the climate crisis to be on the forefront of local and international decision-making. No longer can we stick our heads in the sand – this is an emergency.

Alexandra Tortell, Clarissa Fenech, Jamie Grech, Joanna Cachia, Marija Camilleri, Mia Macelli, Nadine Debattista, Rebecca Shaw and Samuel Aquilina are members of the Maltese Paediatric Association.

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